Ayken’s Steps

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Lori Dehn


“They’re coming, Kaya!”

The girl was just a wisp of blood and bone and straight blond hair. She couldn’t possibly be strong enough to shoulder this burden. But then again, she couldn’t be a day over 15, and yet she had seen a hundred winters melt away. Just because something couldn’t be never meant that it wasn’t.

Kaya nodded at the dark-haired sentry on his horse. He reined the animal around and headed back down the path. The young priestess turned toward her unusual refugees and laid a hand on the stone wall of the mountain.

“This is the place where you must make your decision,” she told them. “After this place, this time, there is no step back.”

“But… how do we know this is right?” The voice was weak and vibrated like a too-tight lute string.

“You don’t, my lady. As with any decision, there are a thousand things that will happen because you choose this over that, and a thousand things will happen for each of those. Is it better than standing and fighting, or hiding, or taking that jeweled knife at your waist and saving the Dragon Lord the trouble? No one can say, because that answer could be different for everyone.” Kaya reached into her pocket and pulled out a pure white crystal on a long, silver chain. It cast a pattern of colored lights around the granite alcove. “What I can promise you is that action and intellect are Goddess-given, and those of pure intent are Goddess-guarded. All else is up to you.”

The tall boy pulled himself to his gawky height, placing his hands over the queen’s faintly trembling shoulders. “Father would want this. He would have done it himself,” said Ayken.

A tear slid down her cheek, splashing on the grey silk like a drop of blood. “I lost him already. That doesn’t make this easier.”

Kaya pressed her palm against the wall, opened her mouth and music pure and natural as rain filled the alcove. Slowly, the rock receded beneath her hand, like a sinkhole opening in sand. Behind the granite, a staircase spiraled up toward the peak and down through the earth.

Ayken frowned. “Which way?”

“That, too, is your decision,” Kaya said. “Either direction will take you to a new destiny.”

The rider thundered back up the path. “Kaya, the horses are entering the pass!”

The queen’s white skin paled so that her veins stood plain upon her face. “You have to go,” she whispered.

“Which way?” Ayken asked again.

The queen looked to Kaya, then back at her son. “Follow your heart, and we will find each other.”

Now it was his tears that fell. “How do you know?”

She smiled. “Because half of your heart is mine.” She kissed his bloodscraped knuckles. “Now go.”

He stepped onto the staircase, and the world dissolved in white light around him. He looked up at brightness, down into fearful dark, and hesitated. He started to lift his foot, preparing to head up the steps into the more reassuring light, but the glare hurt his eyes. Instead he swallowed his fear and headed below.

A moment later, Ayken was in the courtyard of his father’s palace, just as it had been three days ago, before the Dragon Lord’s coup. There were his father’s Lion pennants fluttering from the tower parapets, the golden edging declaring him king. There was his father’s horse, Whisper, nickering from the stable paddock. And there, feeding him some fruit, was his father, talking to a man in blue steel armor.

“Father?”

He looked up at Ayken. “Lad! I thought you would be at the races with your friends.”

I was, thought Ayken, feeling slightly sluggish, as though the air was thick and he waded through time. I cheered for my horse to win while you died.

It hit him. While you died. Now is when the Dragon Lord strikes. And as he thought the words, he saw the blue knight draw his blade.

“For Draconis!”

“No!” screamed Ayken, diving headfirst to the ground in a somersault. In his slowed, thickened world, time crept while he dashed, and the 14-year-old prince rose to his feet between the knife and his father’s side, a pitchfork in his hand. The tines found the articulated scales of the knight’s gauntlet, pushing through steel, through flesh and bone. The Dragon Lord’s man screamed like a frightened girl, his shining blade falling to the ground. Immediately, four of the king’s guard were upon him.

King Lyn fought down fatherly panic, allowing himself only a protective arm around the son who had saved his life. Instead, he faced the knight. “For Draconis? What message must my brother send me on the tip of a blade?”
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